750,000! That’s how many flowers it takes to cover Brussels’s central square, the Grand Place. Every other year a carpet of colorful begonias is laid out in the historic city centre, the vibrant and extraordinary spectacle that turns the plaza into a fairy tale vision. It’s not hard to embellish the Grand Place, which is often voted as the most beautiful square in Europe. Ornate Baroque guild houses and Gothic town hall buildings line its periphery, and side streets bearing names like ‘butter’, ‘cheese’, ‘herring’, etc. reflect its origins as the main marketplace of old Brussels. Today the shops are still around, although most of them hawk chocolates and tacky souvenirs. But the Grand Place retains its majestic aura, and it’s easy to understand why this place is still one of the busiest tourist sites in the city.
I first visited the Grand Place on a cold winter day when the square was all but empty. Like much of Brussels, its beauty left a strange impression on me of something grandiose, but aloof. It took the flower carpet for me to see Brussels in a different light–more colorful and more joyful. What a delightful thing it is to block the main square for several days just to decorate it with thousands of petals! All this for a few evanescent moments of beauty.
The flower carpet was first unfurled in 1971 on the Grand-Place by the landscape architect E. Stautemans, and it has been such a success that not only has it returned ever since, similar carpets have been designed by Stautemans in other cities, including Paris, London, Vienna, Buenos Aires and even Colombus, Ohio. Begonias are used for their range of saturated hues and resistance to wilting. (And here’s your useless fact of the day–Belgium is the world’s largest producer of begonia tubers.)
We went on the first day of the flower carpet, which also turned out to be one of the hottest. Under the bright sunshine, the petals looks iridescent, and the colors were almost blindingly bright. Against the worn grey of the 17th century buildings of the Grand Place, the reds, yellows, and greens looked even more vibrant. I admired the carpet long enough to feel the prickly rays of sunshine on my bare shoulders and then we retreated into the shade of the side streets.
Maybe, it was the effect of the sun or the colors, but for the first time in months I felt relaxed and happy without some anxiety lurking in the back of my mind. Once at home, I decided that it’s time to enjoy some café blanc, one of my favorite beverages, that always makes me feel as if I’m on vacation.
Café blanc is a bit of a misnomer because this Lebanese drink contains no coffee at all. It’s just hot water flavored with orange blossom, and it’s like sipping air perfumed with flowers. It’s not overwhelmingly heady, however, and the same principle of dilution that works in perfumery applies to this drink. Mixed with water, orange blossom tastes not just floral, but also green, citrusy, spicy and warm. The first sip reveals a zesty freshness, but what lingers on your lips is the taste of honeyed petals. It’s a drink to sip slowly as you feel the setting sun on your face. Or, by contrast, as you curl up with a book on a cold winter day when sunshine seems like a distant memory of a summer that flashed by in a flurry of red petals.
Café Blanc, Lebanese Orange Blossom Drink
1 cup of boiling water
1 Tablespoon orange blossom water
Pour a cup of hot water, add orange blossom water, stir and enjoy. You can add a teaspoon of lightly flavored honey, if you prefer your café blanc sweet.
Curl up in a comfortable armchair, sip and imagine that you’re living your fantasy life on the Riviera.
For guidelines on purchasing orange blossom water or to read my other recipes using this complex seasoning, please see orange-blossom-water tag.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin